Here, play is serious business
Resource center provides early childhood education professionals with the resources to support children’s cognitive development with play
Henriquela is happy to be here, but she’s not ready to let go of her mother yet. Before running to play with her friends, the four-year-old hugs her mother and climbs on her back one last time, laughing. The little girl attends a Community Kindergarten in Missira, in Bissau, capital of Guinea-Bissau. “She likes the kindergarten very much and learned a lot since she joined…”, says Ezequiela N’djale, Henriquela’s mother. "I saw a big change in her education”, adds the mother.
Besides playing with friends, the part Henriquela enjoys most is listening to stories. "The stories she hears here she then tells us at home," says her mother.
Luckily for Henriquela, the kindergarten of Missira is right next door to the RENAJI-GB Resources Center, a space where kindergarten teachers and education professionals can borrow material for research or to prepare lessons and activities. In that small room filled with shelves with books, puzzles, games, puppets and posters, are several options for children's fairytales, including princess stories, which are Henriquela's favorites.
"That material from the resource center helps us as educators to make the daily plan of our activities," says Aramata Mané, one of Henriquela's educators in the Community Kindergarten of Missira. "The educator can borrow a book and do the activities easily because the child needs to see pictures to learn," says Aramata.
The resources center is run by the National Kindergarten Network and was financed by UNICEF, with education-directed funds from the Kingdom of Spain and the Kingdom of Norway. Since its creation in 2021, the resource center has been receiving books and educational materials donated by individuals and organizations in the community. It is the first of its kind in the country.
Reading stories to children is also one of the things Zinaida Imbana enjoys doing most. At 28, she works as a teacher at the public kindergarten in Plubá, a few kilometers away, but she often comes to Missira to use the resource center. "I borrow storybooks to read to the children and to use as inspiration to invent my own stories," she explains. "Stories develop the child's creativity, and also her perception and concentration".
The resource center is aimed at early childhood education professionals and the material provided have two purposes: to stimulate children’s development and to enable adults learn how to engage children in stimulating activities that build their cognitive and social skills. “We are starting down the path of early childhood education in the country, so we need to make educators understand what happens with the child in terms of development when she plays”, explains Carla Jauad, Early Childhood Development Specialist for UNICEF. Here, “play is serious business”.
"Often the children in the Missira kindergarten go to the resources center to play these games that help develop their cognitive skills," says Ensa Camara, a technician from the National Kindergarten Network, while showing the games, puzzles and everyday materials that educators borrow. "When they are playing, the children don't ask the educators for help. They learn from their own mistakes until they get it right," he says. Preschool teachers using child-centered methodologies strive to make children feel safe enough to make mistakes and try again, so they can succeed at their own pace.
But because the material specializes in education, the resources center helps not only the children. Zinaida is in the last year of her degree to become a kindergarten teacher and her final thesis is on "the contribution of Maria Montessori's methodology in the process of cognitive development of 4 and 5-year-old children". Here, she finds books, materials and practices that help her research. "I have been coming to the resources center many times", says Zinaida.
The center serves educators in Bissau, but it also attracts professionals from other regions, who are forced to travel long distances on damaged roads to visit it. "There is a need for us to create more resources centers in other regions," says Ensa. The National Network of Kindergartens meets frequently with kindergarten educators in all regions of the country, to conduct capacity-building trainings and to listen to the main difficulties of those who work with vulnerable children in hard-to-reach areas. "The lack of materials makes pedagogical practice very difficult for those who work with early childhood,” he adds.
In the Missira kindergarten there are also everyday materials, - like cups, washboard, towels, keys and boxes. These are the materials of "practical life," according to Ensa. They prove that learning is possible everywhere, as small stimuli today can lead to complex cognitive processes tomorrow.
While apparently Henriquela is just playing with clothes peg, she is actually "developing eye-hand coordination and grasping," Carla explains. Soon, the little girl will have no trouble holding a pencil, as she is developing her fine motor skills. By playing and repeating the movement of attaching and detaching springs, or opening and closing boxes, she prepares her body and brain for more complex actions. This is how essential mental schemas are generated that will enable Henriquela and her peers to reach their full cognitive potential as adults.
The National Network of Kindergartens supports about 500 kindergartens in Guinea Bissau, including public, private and community kindergartens, that benefit about 17,000 children. The resource center in Bissau is one of their ways to promote child-centered pedagogy methodologies in the country and strengthen an educational system to invest in early childhood.
Across the room, to the naked eye, it looks like a boy and a girl are playing make-believe with a tea set, but the trained eyes of the kindergarten teachers know that they are learning the concept of filling and emptying, volume and permanence of objects. Watching the same water flow out of the teapot to fill three cups and then back from the cups to the teapot is fascinating to the children and helps them develop complex thinking.
Playing, Henriquela “started learning the alphabet and learned how to count to 25”, her mother says, proudly. “The games she plays here she then wants to repeat at home”, says Ezequiela.